It happens in the very best run organisations! In fact if there is more than one person in a workplace it is almost a certainty that at some time conflict will arise between the parties.
Workplace conflict is inevitable. The pressures of meeting deadlines, learning new systems or just getting the job done, creates tension between co-workers, supervisors and management. In fact supervisors spend around 25% of their time resolving workplace disputes. Conflict in the workplace results from a variety of causes and can be positive if it is properly managed and is part of the team’s ‘culture’ when seeking or developing better outcomes. As mentioned however, it must be well managed to reduce the risk of it escalating into a dispute.
Disputes can arise from unreal expectations, unclear roles and responsibilities, different or unclear goals, organisational structure, interpersonal issues including bullying and harassment and performance issues.
Our lawyers are also skilled dispute resolvers and nationally accredited mediators. At Lopich Lawyers our aim is assist management and employees to deal with conflict and to help create a culture that prevents those ‘clashes’ from becoming major disputes.
Case Study Workplace Dispute
The problem arose with the appointment of a new Operations Manager and the conflict that arose with her personal assistant (PA) who had been in the position to the previous three managers over a period of 10 years. The new manager although an experienced executive had not supervised staff before and was anxious to ensure her appointment resulted in significant improvement in the output of the workgroup.
The PA put in a formal complaint against the manager stating her management style was impersonal, dictatorial and featured poor communication and mood swings. At a joint meeting to discuss the dispute with the General Manager the Operations Manager broke down and left work on stress leave.
The PA and the work team were used to running their own race and with the rapid turnover of managers had not had to worry about being accountable for their actions. Some of the work practices such as long lunches and ‘smokos’ were clearly unsatisfactory and needed fixing. The new manager however had not approached the task of supervision well and tended to send emails and retreat to her office with the door closed rather than deal with the issues.
The Operations Manager was on stress leave for two months and had been receiving treatment throughout that time. The treatment had been effective and she was declared fit to return to work. The workers compensation insurer and the company agreed that if the workplace issues were not resolved prior to her return to work it was likely that further problems would arise and the costs would be significant. The mediator met with both parties separately in confidence to help them identify all the issues, their concerns and how they saw the way of moving forward. It was clear that communication had been very poor and both parties had interpreted each other’s behaviour personally. The private meetings indicated that there was support for change from both the manager and the PA. The dispute did not start out as personal but as communication deteriorated it did become a contest between both parties. The mediator arranged a joint meeting to discuss the issues and develop strategies to allow a successful return to work and a positive ongoing working relationship. It was clear from the opening statements that the manager had misinterpreted the behaviour of the PA as disruptive and an intentional approach to dominate work practices. The PA indicated that the change in management style had been interpreted as an intention to establish a case to have her dismissed. During this session the manager was able to explain her uncertainty in taking over the position and how difficult she found the casual approach of the staff to the way they worked. She also explained her expectation of work practices and timeliness in taking lunch and other brakes. The PA was able to explain that she really valued the job and thought she was helping the manager feel at home by being so casual. For the first time in their working relationship all the cards were put on the table and although sensitive issues were discussed, they were at last communicating.
Both the parties were keen to resolve the issues. The manager acknowledged that she needed to communicate directly with staff and have an open door policy except when she needed to concentrate on a particular project that required dedicated concentration. The PA accepted that there needed to be changes in the work practices and suggested a meeting with all the staff to explain what was expected and how best to implement the changes.
The role of the mediator throughout this process was to assist the parties to understand why the conflict had arisen and to identify options to create a professional workplace. The key outcome was to keep the communication lines open and to continue to build trust between the parties as it was in both their interests to build a better workplace.
The whole process took several hours and required a private meeting with both parties to finalise the options. By the end of the mediation both parties were speaking openly to each other and it was clear to the mediator that they would be able to work together and solve problems as they arise.
The Mediated Outcome
The parties signed an agreement to address the communication issues and a detailed list of changes to existing practices was outlined for both parties with times for completion identified. The manager agreed to start back at work on the following day.
Lessons to be learnt
Workplace issues require resolution when they arise, either within existing processes or by an independent mediator when appropriate. Interpersonal differences are often ignored or trivialised by management, however they can end up as actionable claims and therefore cannot be ignored. Significant issues such as stress, harassment, bullying etc can be resolved with the intervention of a professional dispute resolver.